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A famous fashion photographer turns his lens on Kashmir and finds profound pain

Bharat Sikka’s ‘Where the Flowers Still Grow’ is a haunting, elegiac and ambitious suite of images.

Amitav Ghosh entitled his searing book on climate change The Great Derangement for its impassioned analysis of how overlapping “modes of concealment” work together to obscure the public’s “common-sense understandings” about the “realities of their plight”. “If the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness,” asks the acclaimed writer, would it not “surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation” of the creative classes?

Much the same question can be posed to India’s artists and writers about the country’s raging internal conflicts in Kashmir and parts of the North East, as well as the so-called “red corridor” stretching from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal. In 2016 alone, the Indian Home Ministry credited over 1,000 acts of violence to Naxalites.

When it comes to India’s only Muslim-majority state, the purposeful collective forgetting is particularly incomprehensible. Since the 1980s, Kashmiri resistance has been obdurate despite the state becoming the most densely militarized zone in the world. In the past year alone, over 100 people have been killed by security forces, with hundreds more blinded by pellet guns. And in April, only 7% of voters turned out in Srinagar for the Lok Sabha bye-election. Yet this conflict is largely absent from the dailies and nightly news broadcasts, with coverage usually defaulting to jingoism whenever Kashmir is mentioned.

It is precisely this nationwide cultural derangement that makes Bharat Sikka’s new collection of artworks so poignant and welcome at this time. The veteran fashion photographer is already well known for his striking, unconventional work which regularly features in the world’s leading glamour magazines [full disclosure: Sikka and I collaborated on a 2010 feature about Russians in Goa for GQ India]. More recently, he has developed and showcased a moody, meditative artistic sensibility. But it is with Where the Flowers Still Grow – a haunting, elegiac and ambitious suite of images – that Sikka establishes himself in the front ranks of Indian artists of his generation.

Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka

Where the Flowers Still Grow comes in different, and somewhat divergent, avatars. The complete collection was displayed at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. Most of that body of work is on display at Nature Morte gallery in Delhi until May 27. But I visited and viewed an even smaller selection in Goa, where Sikka’s artworks have been mounted in several rooms at Sunaparanta, the arts centre on Altinho hill in the centre of Panjim (this exhibition will continue until June 12).

Nature Morte’s Peter Nagy writes in his curatorial note, “The central core of ‘Where the Flowers Still Grow’ is comprised of portraits, predominantly young men shot alone within the colossal grandeur of an unspoiled Nature, which seems to know nothing of national borders and political rivalries.” This aspect is certainly present at the Goa exhibition, but perhaps less emphasised. Instead, another compelling theme emerges, of ephemera and desolation, of neglected objects and abandoned locations.

Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka

Nagy describes a family visit to Kashmir in 2013, where Sikka “discovered Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator, which tells the story of a young Kashmiri man’s struggle with his own sense of self, buffeted by the exigencies of history and the present”. He then repeatedly travelled back to the troubled Valley, “to photograph the people who live there, to attempt to make some sense of their dilemma through his own personal experience”. This is tricky and potentially hazardous terrain for someone known best as a fashion photographer, and it is hugely to Sikka’s credit that he navigated through unerringly. An empathetic sincerity rings true throughout Where the Flowers Still Grow, which makes its point powerfully without straying to strident or maudlin. While politics lurks everywhere, it remains implied, left just outside the frame.

Mirza Waheed, the affable and outspoken author of The Collaborator, had not seen the images in Sikka’s exhibition, though he had heard about it from a friend. Via email from his home in London, he said, “Along with being a story about boyhood, love, home and music, [The Collaborator] tries to look at what it means to live a life brutalised by military occupation. Nearly fifty percent of the population in Kashmir suffers from some form of psychological trauma including a high incidence of PTSD; one in six Kashmiris has faced some form of torture...If the novel has inspired a photographer to shoot Kashmir, I think it’s a good thing.”

Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka

Like Nagy, Waheed also believes the portraits are the emotional spine of Sikka’s exhibition. “I particularly liked the lonely figures,” he said. “Besides collective suffering and resistance, a brutal conflict also forces dark loneliness on people.” In fact, these images of Kashmiri men – sometimes standing alert in their rural setting, sometimes looking at the camera from horseback – are the finest achievement of Where the Flowers Still Grow, and perhaps the artist’s experience with models in fashion photography has contributed to their success. Viewed individually, these subjects are poised and watchful. There is no anger or resentment, no sense of oppression or exploitation. Instead, there is only exquisite equipoise, mutual appraisal and an underlying acceptance.

Once seen collectively, Sikka’s portraits of Kashmiri men linger in the viewer’s mind. This in turn makes the vast, superb landscape photographs in Where the Flowers Go uncomfortable viewing. The stunningly beautiful countryside of Kashmir is postcard-perfect. But now there is the nagging question: where are the people? It has become a popular belief in Kashmir that India wants the Valley, but not its people. Sikka subtly, almost imperceptibly, builds his case that the two are inalienable, impossible to separate or even distinguish between. It is a masterful feat in the history of Indian art’s engagement with the country’s contemporary reality.

Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka
Credit: Bharat Sikka
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